Fantasy Worldbuilding: How-To


Worldbuilding: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why

I don’t talk about worldbuilding much on here. A lot of that is because I one hundred percent don’t believe in the traditional fantasy worldbuilding approach: I don’t think you need your whole lineage of kings written out, I don’t think you need a map, and I don’t think you need to pause and describe every landmark your characters pass. I think, if you do this, you’ve essentially written a travelogue for an imaginary place. And, trust me, I don’t even like to read travelogues about places I’m going.

What you need to do, instead, is flesh out your world. That sounds simple, right? Surprise, surprise: it’s not.

The first thing you need to do, when building your fantasy world, is consider this question: what constitutes ‘flesh’?

The ‘flesh’ of your built world is a series of details that perform a double purpose. ‘Fleshy’ details–the good, meaty stuff–do more than show the world around your characters as you picture it. In addition to showing, they also explain: for instance, if there’s a statue of four soldiers made up of lapis and granite at the gates of the city in which your main character lives, your MC has been passing those statues every time he goes into/out of town his whole life. What do they mean to him? Did he meet a girlfriend at the foot of the statues once a week for a whole summer, until her father found out? Do stonemasonry students from the city university attach expertly carved penises to them every Fool’s Day? Do your MC and his father bet every time on which statue will be gifted with the largest set of bait and tackle? (I told you these details were fleshy).

(A note, about ‘fleshy’ details: the very best ones are bombastic. They are memorable. If you’re just going to drone on about Ghern heir of Kern heir of Bernie, I’m not interested. Why should I be? I’m not a history major. Mention in passing, instead, the great rule of Ghern the Incontinent, followed by that of his son Kern the Bladderblaster. And why are we hearing about them, anyway? Is this story about bathroom humor? It better be. Otherwise, I don’t want to know at all).

The building blocks of your world aren’t just static things, to be removed and changed at your convenience. Gods, statues, customs, clothing–your characters interact with these things. They have opinions about them, inclinations towards or away from them, friends who have been helped by them, friends who have been hurt by them. Women disappointed in love might traditionally drown themselves in a river outside of the village called Talia’s Tears: do you think this would make people of the village less or more likely to draw water from that river?

Recapping: your characters live with this stuff. They don’t just hate the Empire or love the Empire, believe in the gods or not believe in them. People are more complicated than that. Even a character who believes firmly in the grace of Plougtagh the Magnificent is going to have his faith tested every once in a while. And why does he believe so firmly, anyway?

Which is going into my main bit here. Cliched as it sounds, if you want to worldbuild, you need to ask these grade school questions:

Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Because your religion, your economy, and your lineage of kings don’t exist in separate vacuums. They’re shaped by one another–they build one another.

Let’s start with an idea I had the other day. I was reading some articles about freediving (which is, actually, fascinating) and came across some stuff about the Ama of Japan, women who dove as deep as thirty feet underwater with no gear whatsoever, in the early days. They were able to hold their breath for two minutes, and would often dive near-nude in below freezing water in search of pearls and food.

Badass, right?

I started to think to myself: what if I wrote a story about a freediver in a pre-mechanical era where the climate was extremely cold?

I started picturing it: a woman in a hand-stitched skin suit caulked up with some sort of pitch, probably, diving through a hole in the ice. She’d only have a small amount of time before the shock killed her, and how would she see, and who the hell is she anyway, so I had some questions, and where did I turn?

That’s right. Who, what, when, where, how, why.

I’m going to try and verbalize this process, just so you can get an idea of how to answer these questions yourself. Look at the way I do this–there are rules to the way I answer my own questions.


A young girl, obviously. Strong, agile, small, but probably with a good insulating layer of fat on her. She’d have to be trained to do this–by whom? There must be a lot of people doing it, if there’s training. It isn’t the sort of thing you just learn to do on your own, without great need.

So who are these divers? Are they some sort of archaic first responder, saving shipwreck victims? (Maybe there are fjords. Lots of wrecks around fjords). Are they diving for something valuable–a food item, or something worth a lot of money? (It would have to be expensive and/or a great delicacy. These dives obviously take up time and resources for this community). Or–maybe there’s a religious reason. Maybe their god is a grey whale, or something, and these girls leave him offerings (in which case, why THESE particular girls?).


Let’s talk about this suit. This is a premechanical society, so it’s not a fancy manmade fabric. The best thing I can come up with is skin–leather of some sort. Now, they’re in the far north, so where does this skin come from? Maybe it comes from the same thing she’s diving for. I don’t know. Hell. But they’ve stitched it together somehow, so they’ve probably
pitched up the cracks, or put wax of some sort in them. How does she get into this suit, anyway? It isn’t like they have zippers. I guess she puts it on with buttons or eyehooks as fasteners, and someone else caulks that seam up.

Which means there’s more than one person involved in this dive. Well, I already knew that, she’s got to have a trainer. I’m starting to think this is an Ama-style dive for valuables more and more–it sure is taking up a lot of time. Maybe their economy is centered around whatever she finds underneath the ice.


I’m picturing Vikings. Well, not exactly Vikings, but something Vikingesque–so these folks won’t have much in the way of technology yet. I’m picturing Dark Ages shit here. Honestly, I imagine this society is kind of isolated anyway, a la early Icelandic settlers in Greenland, so when doesn’t concern me too much yet. However,


Is a pretty big issue.

This isn’t civilized society, though there is some sort of society in place. I picture a cold and horrible place, a small village isolated from the rest of the country (maybe it’s a colony, or an outpost). Life’s obviously pretty hard here, which is what makes me think this girl of mine is diving for something of physical value: perhaps what she’s diving for is the only dependable food source for her people. (Which reminds me–there are all sorts of health complications possible with freediving. Do these girls usually die young? Do they do it of their own free will, even?) Maybe there’s a heat vent on the ocean floor, and the water’s warm enough to support life on the rocks just under the ice. Maybe she harvests some sort of scallop-y creature for her people to eat there.

I think it’s unlikely she’s diving for religious purposes, given this cold barren location I’m picturing. I imagine the gods don’t get that sort of sacrifice, when people are so hard up. And ships? There probably aren’t many. So it’s either food, or something they use to procure food. Though, if that’s the case, where the hell did she get the skins for the suit?


Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe the women dive under the ice, while the men take boats out and hunt seals. Sealskin would be pretty good for that sort of thing, all the blubber and stuff. Though, god, that would mean the skin was uncured. She’d smell awful. Rancid blubber. Hell yes. I know I’m on the right track when there are smells involved.

And, as you might have noticed, all of this leads us to the most important question, the one you really want to answer.


Why, why, why would a small village exist in this location? Why would these people go to so much trouble just to get food, when they could move?

It’s not like the Icelandic settlers. Those guys thought they had a pretty good thing going, and then a mini ice age set in, and poof, time to die out or move. Why aren’t these people doing the same? They’ve obviously got a system worked out for living here. Why?

Well. If they have to stay there, they’re either exiles, or they’re trapped.

I like exiles. Maybe this is like a fantasy Siberia of sorts, where people guilty of some crime in the kingdom proper are sent to live out their days. In which case, why are they sent there? Was our girl sent there, or was she born to people already living there?

I like the idea of a long-ago banishment. Maybe these people took place in an uprising or a rebellion, a hundred years ago, and they and their descendents have been doomed to live in this awful (but probably very pretty) place for the rest of their days. But–oooooh, here we go, we like buts–maybe the new king is young and of a different kind. Maybe, though these people don’t know it yet, the political climate is ripe for their return.

And with that, we have a story. The action opens when a messenger comes from the capital city with news of the old king’s death, and the rule of the new king. It doesn’t mean much to them at the time–they’ve lived through a few kings–but the arrival of the messenger would be an event. They don’t get many events.

So they send their young girls diving, to get food for the feast. Scallopy creatures, seaweed, etc. The men are out hunting seals, hoping for a whale maybe. And when our girl dives, she finds something that might change the course of history for her people.

What does she find? I have no idea. But I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, see how that works? Not far along at all, and I already know some things about these people. I know they’re resourceful, and tough, and hardy. I know that, at some point, they were rebels. They live in a place of stunning but inhospitable wonder, and they probably love it more than they hate it, since, after a hundred years of exile, they don’t know any other life.

And I know their king, or grand vizier or whatever he winds up being, is a decent guy.

Or maybe he just has a use for them.

Either way, progress has been made. We’ve got some sensory details, some answered questions. Now, to write.

What’s Up With Me III


What’s Up With Me, III

It’s time for another all-encompassing ‘what I’m doing’ sort of post.

Obviously, the answer right now is typing.


I have new and exciting crap to tell you about my own crap, which you hopefully read. While I know this post will leave you with a spring in your step and the tender refrains of love music by lute echoing in your ears, please, try and contain your joy until I’m done typing. Really. I hate it when dreams soar prematurely.

1) The King’s Might
My Aurian and Jin unrelated novel, The King’s Might, will be out 7/21/15. Will you like it? I bet you will. It’s more serious than A&J, and far grimmer, which people seem to like, for some reason I don’t completely understand. It’s also about princes, which people also seem to like.

Oh, and one other thing. It’s going to be free.

Yes, you read that right. PERMANENTLY FREE OH SWEET BABY JESUS LOVEJOY JUMBLEBUBBLES. So even if you don’t like it, you haven’t lost a fucking thing, honey. (There will be a post in not too long about my decision to do this, and why I’d do such a silly thing. It’ll be edumacational.)

2) Bonemaker
I wrote another novelette. Sorry, I can’t seem to stop doing it for some reason. It’s about Morda the Bonemaker, and his time as a child in the Joyous Wood. I’m still trying to decide what to do with it, but hell, it’s there. I have this vague plan where I do a few of them–I had a great idea for one about the making of the Sundering Sword–and maybe do a little compilation bookthing. But I don’t know. Just in the throwing-stuff-around phase on this one.

3) Dehydrator.
I haven’t talked about this enough yet. You know what’s surprisingly delicious? Cucumber chips. Put a little salt and vinegar on those bad boys, a light dusting of chili powder, let ’em dehydrate for fifty years or however long it takes where you are. SO TASTY.
Anyway. Lemme try this again.

3) Aurian and Jin.
I’m going to start running free sales on the ol’ A&J through Amazon once more. The first one of these, for one day only, is this weekend: Saturday, June 28th, 2015. I’m hoping to get a few more reviews in time for Little Bird’s release this September, so, you know, buy my stuff and whatnot. (The Antidote will not be free. Because, come on, it’s ninety-nine cents. If you’re that bad off and you want to read it anyway, contact me and I’ll damn well buy it for you.)

4) What the hell should I do next?
I’m going to stick a poll in this post to ask YOU, buddy. Because I’ve got like twenty thousand things going right now, and, while I’ll probably finish at least half of them, I’m curious as to which ones you guys want me to finish FIRST. I like to feel important and liked. Or, well. Important, at least.

And I like to do things for you guys. And about the only thing I’m good at other than writing is baking, which doesn’t transfer to the internets too well. So, tell me what to write and I’ll do it.

A note: all of these projects now have at least 10,000 words on ’em, which is about where something has to be for me to be fairly sure I’m going to finish it.

1) Things That Go Bump In The Night
2) Night Shift
3) Balancer
4) Hesperides
5) The Apple and the Tree

Reading: A Passion, Not an Assignment

Much prettier original image by Thomas Le Febvre, via

Reading as a Passion, Not an Assignment

I see it more and more here lately. The trend of ‘shelfies’, where book lovers posts pictures of their bookshelves so eeeeveryone can see just what they’re reading (just as contrived, of course, as the actual selfie. And a good deal more full of intellectual back-patting). A quote from Ovid, culled lovingly and out of context for a Facebook profile. And any more, if you DARE misuse an apostrophe in a comment thread, God save your soul from the grammar Nazis lurking in the next comment with a Final Solution for you.

Hurr, hurr. Aren’t you all very clever.

I was an English major in college (no, I didn’t graduate). I’m not well educated, but I’m not poorly educated, either. I’m not a literary genius–however, I’m pretty far from being an idiot too. What I am is a writer. What I am is a lifelong lover of books.

So let me ask you this, earnestly and directly:

Please stop using my lifelong passion as your selfish intellectual coup de grace. Please Jesus. Please, please, please.

Every book website I check into, EVERY ONE, has a list of ‘Classics To Read Before You Reach This Arbitrary Age.’ Because, tee hee, you’re nothing if you haven’t read Anna Karenina by the time you’re thirty! How on Earth can you ever hope to fit in with your well-read friends and eventually marry a well-read man if you don’t know shit about Dostoyevsky? (Also, here’s a list of thirty really popular romance novels you can sneak on the side while you finish those Russian monsters. Don’t tell your lit teacher.). But reading like totally benefits you and makes you a better person. It’s like Echinacea. Feeling foggy today? Take a book!

When the fuck did reading ‘great literature’ become a task we completed so our family and friends could give us approving nods, or so we could be one step closer to realization on our self-improvement programs? When did this awful self-perpetuating trend of doing ‘smart things’ just so you can benefit begin?

(For that matter, when did everything become a matter of self-improvement and lifestyle affirmation? Part of life is learning to roll with the punches, and if everything you surround yourself with gives you a warm glow inside and a friendship with likeable characters then you, sir or madam, are not learning to roll. Folks need to learn how to enjoy disagreement, how to debate and dissent without personal hard feelings. But that’s neither here nor there.)

We need to de-mystify the purpose of reading, especially reading classics. I might argue we need to de-emphasize the importance of ‘classics’ altogether. You read Ulysses? So what? I can read Ulysses too. So could any child old enough to know most of the words. The question is, really, did you enjoy it. Did you connect with it. Not did you read it. (We won’t even enter into the stratosphere of ‘did you understand it’. I’m not even certain Joyce understood it).

I have never read Anna Karenina. I haven’t read it because I’m not a big goddamn fan of Tolstoy. I like his shorter stuff, but I made it like halfway through War and Peace, got tired, and took a nap. I never even made it to Anna. Does this mean I’m an idiot? Um, no. Does it mean I’ve missed some vital piece of my existence? Maybe, but if I have I so far haven’t noticed it. If I ever feel it calling to me, I’ll try again. But so far, I haven’t. Kreutzer Sonata, on the other hand–there’s a great damn story. I enjoyed it.

I repeat: I did not read this great classical work of literature, Anna Karenina, because I wasn’t interested in it.

I repeat, also: reading is my passion. I love books. Like, looove them love them. The first men I ever loved were men in books, the first women I ever wanted to be ‘besties’ with were characters on paper. I read hundreds of books a year. Hundreds. Not because that’s cool (it’s, um, not) or because I have a set number of books I need to read to feel literarily educated. I read them because I’m interested. I read them because I like to read and I get caught up. Could I tell you exactly how many books I’ve read this year? No. Fuck, no. Because I don’t keep count. I’m too busy reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying reading can’t improve you as a human being. Reading a book, after all, is a great way to see places you’ve never been, feel things it is otherwise physically impossible for you to feel. A great book is an uncomfortable experience. It makes you feel things, sometimes, that are taboo, inappropriate, misunderstood. It makes you question your own value system and what you know about the world around you. It lets you into other peoples’ lives, other times, other cultures. And, sometimes: it’s just plain good. You just plain liked it. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

So. The short version of what I’m saying: never read something because it is expected of you to read it. Don’t read for the promise of life change. Don’t read for the promise of learning.

Read because you’re interested. Read it because it’s a good book and you like it. If the only thing you like is Harlequin romances, well, so what? They might not be putting your portrait on the wall at Columbia anytime soon, but you’re going to be a happy camper. Maybe not the most empathetic and educated camper, but again, so fucking what?

Otherwise, with every volume you dry-swallow because you’re supposed to read it and it’s ‘great literature’, you’re on the road to becoming one more person, in a world filled with these people, who doesn’t enjoy reading. With every sentence you underline because you ‘feel it relates to your problems’ and it’ll make a great facebook quote later you are becoming one more cog in the great grinding self-involved culture machine. Let a book take you outside of yourself, not farther in. The world isn’t all about you, and your reading shouldn’t be either. Not everything written ever is going to validate your lifestyle and your beliefs, and you shouldn’t expect it to.

When you’ve finished a good book at four AM, and the house is quiet, keep staring for a few seconds at that final page. Take a deep breath. Put it down. And if it’s a good book, if you really cared about it, for the rest of the day you’ll catch yourself thinking about it.

Not because it’s Great Literature and you know you’re supposed to. Because you can’t help yourself. Because it’s part of you now, and you have to.

Here are fifteen books that’ve done this for me. Some of them are classics, because, y’know, classics tend to be pretty good. Check ’em out if you want, you might like them as much as I did. I’d leave a note here that some of these books might not tally with your personal value system or your view on the way the world should work, but frankly, I don’t give a good goddamn. Some of them don’t tally with MINE. And I liked them anyway. Words are words. They can’t hurt you.

The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol)
Native Son (Richard Wright)
The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius)–sooooo much more entertaining than Tacitus. So. Much. Make yourself some popcorn and learn about the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)
Women (Charles Bukowski)–I know what you’re thinking here. Lewd bunch of crap. You’re thinking that because you had a strong reaction to it. Therefore: read ESPECIALLY if you are NOT a chauvinist pig.
The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston)
The Darling (Russell Banks)–A book all Americans who feel woefully exposed when they travel should read right about now. If you read it and you don’t understand why I said that, message me and we’ll talk.
The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
McTeague (Frank Norris)
The Monk (Matthew Lewis)–this is hands-down the best Gothic novel ever written. It has monks, a pure young heroine, crypts, foreign locales, the Devil–screw you, Ann Radcliffe. Screw you.
The Immoralist (Andre Gide)

Writing: Indie Ten


Indie Ten: Ten Good Indie Reads

First off: while I was writing this post, I saw Dylan Hearn on Suffolk Scribblings post something similar. Here it is. More indie authors for you to enjoy, and proof that a lot of folks are doing this. Let’s keep it up!

So I wrote a blog a while back about how, sometimes, your best readers are going to be other indie writers. I believe this–strongly–and I try to do my part by recommending those indie books I read that’re pretty good. After all, if we aren’t all supporting each other, how can we expect to get support for ourselves?

I still don’t read all indies–I have mad respect for a lot of folks who publish through the big houses, and I wouldn’t stop reading them just to prove a point. And I don’t read, review, or recommend anything I don’t like (or haven’t read, for that matter. Some people do this).

But in the sea of six million or whatever the number is now books published a year, there’s a lot more to indie fiction than the big folks you keep hearing about, Hugh Howey and Joanna Penn and such. There are smaller minnows in the sea who SHOULD be big fish, whose writing is good, whose books are well published, and who are, through the crowded nature of the market, not getting a ton of attention (at least on Amazon. I’m an Amazon book hoarder). These are some of those books: my indie favorites with forty reviews or less on Amazon. If it’s a series, I count reviews on the first book and not total, because that damned well wouldn’t be fair, would it.

I’d like to take a second and recommend something as well, something other than books. Are you a writer? Thinking of/already have published your own indie fiction? Do yourself a favor and read some other indies. Read at least five of them this year. Find the best ones and post a damn review. Wouldn’t you like it if somebody did that for you? There’s no promise it’ll happen to you just because YOU did it, of course, but it isn’t about that. Just once, don’t make it about that. Read a good book and let the world know how good you thought it was. It’s that simple.

There’s more to making a community work than tit for tat, review for review. And indie publishers ARE a community, whether we want to be or not–we rely on each other for support, help, sympathy. So let’s do it up right and spread the word when we’re excited about something. Let’s give recognition to the people who deserve it.

(A note: for some odd reason, the tablet I’m desultorily tap-tapping this on won’t let me add pictures. So I’m going to add them in gradually as we go. Sorry, folks.)


The Grey Heir: Edgewalker Chronicles Book One (Zachary Katz-Stein)
I picked this one up because the cover was so very cool. And the book inside it didn’t disappoint–a thoughtful and descriptive YAish fantasy about the nature and dangers of religion, with some very creative and curious magic.

Southwind Knights (B.E. Priest)
Okay. If you’ve read this blog you’re probably tired of hearing me talk about these books. You shouldn’t be: you should be talking about them too, because you’ve read them and they’re worth talking about. Well written, prettily published, interesting story. This is a series that has it all.

Children of Fire (Mary Fonvielle)
Okay, I admit it–I’m a friend of this author from way back. But these are good stories, friend or no, and her characters are high fantasy with a touch of the rogue thrown in. My favorite so far has been Eye of the Void–well and touchingly told fantasy in which backstory is used to devastating advantage. Plus, it’s a lot about Thalien. And Thalien is the BOMB. The last line in Eye of the Void, if you’ve been reading since Children of Fire, will give you chills.

The Guests of Honor: Tales from the Virtue Inn Book One (Cat Amesbury)
This is another book you’re tired of hearing me talk about. Baroque and magical whimsy in a semi-modern setting: when I read a critical review that said the book sometimes ‘borders on the downright weird and will take a turn for no apparent reason other than to take a turn’, I knew I had to have it. For me, fantasy is ABOUT taking a random turn sometimes. And it can never be too weird: though it can, like this book, be highly original and NOT AT ALL about vampires and werewolves and all that tiresome old drek.

Touching Madness: River Madden Book One (K.S. Ferguson)
Ms. Ferguson and I reviewed each others’ books and, lo and behold, we have similar senses of humor. Ms. Ferguson’s River Madden is a sweet and lovably awkward guy who just happens to sometimes, you know, sort of kind of cause dimensional rifts. Complicated plots, fascinating ‘magic’, and a homeless hero bombarded by unlikely events ensue. River’s awkward moments, especially in Book I, will make you cringe delightfully. When he’s doing the wrong thing, you want to physically SHOUT at him, and that’s a sign the story has pulled you way the hell in.

The World Serpent: A Raimy Rylan Hunt (Kenneth B. Humphrey)
This is another YA series worth a look. Mr. Humphrey’s writing is straightforward, his humor pithy, his characters believable as teenagers as well as characters (one girl, a young teen named Hadley, will have you literally laughing out loud as she kicks ass in the body of an old-school Viking warrior). Mr. Humphrey made the interesting decision to write this time-traveling demon-hunting YA story in first person present, and by God, after reading it that way you don’t want it in anything else. Action packed: your kids (and you) will clamor for the next one.

Aurian and Jin: A Love Story (Moi)
What, did you think I was going to do this totally without self promotion? Hell naw, I’ve got a novella coming out end of April. If you’ve read this, slide me a review and I’ll love you forever. It’s got severed heads and stuff.


Bombed (Winifred Morris)
Okay, so this book isn’t actually out yet. (It will be 4/17/15. You should go ahead and preorder it) I received a copy for review, and I have to say, I am SO EXCITED I’m putting it on this list before it’s even out. It’s totally not my usual bag–present-day romance, ME, what?–but it’s masterfully written, and there’s a lot more to it than just romance, including, among other hilarious things, a bass player named Buzzard, a stoned DEA agent, and a plot to blow up a small town 4th of July parade. The hits just keep on coming, and God, you want them to.

The Fourth Descendant (Allison Maruska)
Just finished this one up, and what fun! Again, not my usual bag, but Ms. Maruska’s characters are so likeable and their conflicts so well drawn it would be my bag even if it had somebody else’s name on it (which I guess it does, since someone else wrote it, but you get what I’m trying to say here). This book well written, and deals believably and well with a subject I don’t often see dealt with well: immortality, and what need we might really (or really not) have for it.

Juggler, Porn Star, Monkey Wrench (Rich Leder)
Not for people under eighteen, but again, a romantic comedy that’s so much more. Soul-crushingly hilarious. I’ve never been to LA, but after reading this book I felt like I had, and I already wanted to never go again. You’ll laugh so hard you’ll cry. Really. Like, I cried a little.

Life is a Pirate Ship Run by a Velociraptor (Allison Hawn)
I’ve talked about this book before. It’s precious–the stories inside are precious–and you come out of it feeling like you know the narrator. While I’m not always sure about the humor, it works when it works, and even when it doesn’t this is a damn good autobiography of sorts. I wish more autobiographical writing out there had this much character and style.

Writing: Baby’s First Words


Writing: Baby’s First Words

So I’ve been reading me some Connie Willis recently. Highly recommend, if you’re a SF/Fantasy fan. I’ve been reading Blackout, and the first sentence of Blackout is–drumroll, please–

Colin tried the door, but it was locked.

This is a great first sentence, and we’re going to talk about why. But first, being me, I’m going to vacillate for a while, give you a lot of probably unnecessary background information, and virulently express my views. Because that’s why you read this blog. You enjoy my vacillating. For instance:

I made three bean salad last night, and it was delicious.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, to first sentences:

I keep reading the advice, on various writing blogs, that a good first sentence is crucial. That a good first sentences needs to capture the reader’s interest, ensnare them in your story. I take exception to this, on a couple of fronts, which I will list for you here:

1) What the hell does ‘capturing the reader’s interest’ really mean, anyway? This is like the deadest, most nebulous piece of ‘advice’ ever. It’s like telling a child to ‘be good’. And what is good, exactly? I mean, most of us can agree on the ‘thou shalt not kill’ thing, but some of us diverge on how many wives we can have, looking at a neighbor’s oxen, being gay, etc. Erm, back to the subject here. Secondly:
2) I can honestly say, I’ve never stopped reading something after the first damn sentence.

And I am monstrously ADD. I have all the focus of a mouse in a string cheese factory. I circumnavigate tangents and digressions better than Magellan circumnavigated the globe. My entire consciousness–my way of getting work done–is orbital in nature. It has retrograde motherfucking motion. I start off watering the plants. Watering the plants makes me remember, oh shit, I need to scrub out the bathtub before my mother comes to visit. But wait, that shower gel looks pretty empty–didn’t I need some new shower gel? Off to the store to buy shower gel, then–where I see watering cans on clearance and remember the plants. Go home, finish watering the plants. And then I see the sponge on the side of the tub…

You get it. I’m incredibly ADD (and there was one of those digressions, actually). And even I–even I–read something past the first sentence.

Don’t get me wrong, first impressions are important. You want a good first sentence for a good first impression. But is it absolutely the most vital thing in the whole honking story? No. God, no. Because most people will give you a few paragraphs, maybe even a few pages, to prove yourself. And I’ll tell you, personally–while I might read eight of them at once, I rarely put a book down for good. When I do, it’s because it sucks, not because the first sentence sucks. I give you a few chapters to prove yourself before I give up hope. After all, I paid for this crap–I want it to be good. I want you to succeed.

Readers aren’t fish, you can’t snag ’em with a hook and bring ’em up to die slowly and painfully in a tub of ice in your johnboat–or, erm, just trust your brilliant first sentence to do all the work. Your first sentence should be just as good as the rest of your story. Hands down.

But if you want to peak interest in the first sentence–whatever it is that nebulous phrase actually means–the best way to do it is with a first sentence like Ms. Willis’s. Let’s look at it again:

Colin tried the door, but it was locked.

Why does this ‘capture the reader’s interest’?

Because, my dears, it contains conflict. Minor conflict, but conflict nonetheless–we know, from the first sentence, that Colin wants to open this door, but he can’t. It’s not much of a basis for a novel, but as salt and dressing to get you interested, it works well. And, I note, it isn’t overwhelming. Colin tried to save the human race, but it blew itself up anyway would be a little much. You’d shy away from that. Your first sentence is a starting point, after all, and you don’t want to start with the biggest bang in the book. A locked door–that we can take. We know, in four hundred and something pages, that things will escalate beyond a locked door.

And then. As long as we’re discussing ‘capturing interest’, let’s look at the other thing this sentence does:

It leaves us with a question.

Why is that door locked? Why does Colin want to get into this space? It implies, in very few words, conflict and hierarchy, restriction and desire. We don’t know much yet, but we’ve seen conflict and we’ve asked why.

And those are the two things your first sentence should make a reader do. I list, for your easy perusal, what your first sentence should offer:

1) Contains conflict
2) Makes ’em ask WHY.

If you’ve got both these things, then, even if your prose doesn’t move mountains–and there’s nothing special about the language of Ms. Willis’s first sentence–it’ll get the job done.
And that’s all it needs to do.

So quit agonizing over your first sentence. You’ve got, after all, over 50,000 words in which to prove you can write, and if you can’t do it in that length of novel you can’t do it at all. Just introduce conflict and raise some questions and you’ve got a good first sentence.

You’re welcome. Now, off to go do fifty things at more-or-less once.

WW: Extirpate All Pirates


Writing Wednesday: Extirpate All Pirates!

So I’m through with Mistborn now, and I’m on to Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant. First volume, of course. Refugee. It’s–entertaining. It’s certainly that. There’s a lot of blood and mayhem and people getting raped and killed and such, as well as some awkward allegory concerning America’s immigration issues. Very sensational.

And, ultimately, very ineffective.

I should preface this by mentioning I’m not the biggest Piers Anthony fan. (Yes, this will be a writing post. Give me time). The reason for this can, in fact, be summed up in a little nugget about three quarters of the way through the book (if you want to read it, and haven’t yet, stop here, because I’m about to spoiler the SHIT out of it).

Some background: the narrator, who had very few interesting traits save for what Anthony TELLS us but doesn’t bother to SHOW us is interpersonal and leadership ability, has lost his entire family, save for one sister, to space pirates on a lackadaisical and rather drawn-out refugee ramble through the orbit of Jupiter and its moons. He has also, mere pages before, lost his One True Love, who is startlingly beautiful in spite of being in drag for most of the novel, by forcing an airlock open while she is unsuited. He did this knowingly, coldly, for the betterment of his small surviving group. He’s Mighty Fucked Up about it. And, howling his vengeance into the vacuum, he makes this chilling statement:

I remembered my oath: to extirpate all pirates. They surely deserved obliteration.

And, right there–and I was on public transportation, mind you, while I was reading this–I giggled.

Yes, you read that right. I giggled.

Because COME ON. Extirpate? REALLY?

He also, earlier in this novel about the narrator’s fifteen year old self, uses the word ‘pulchritude’ in reference to a sister. Aaawkward.

I have to mention this because it ties in so very well to what I was saying in a previous post, The Right Words, which more of you should’ve read, because ENGLISH. I think I even TALKED about pulchritude. As one of those words which is, overwhelmingly, probably not the right word.

I don’t believe a fifteen year old boy, newly orphaned, his soul struggling to mature under a crunchy candy-coating of rage and depression, looks to the stars and comes up with the word EXTIRPATE. I don’t care how good his education was. I don’t care if he went to Harvard and graduated summa cum laude whilst still suckling on his mother’s teat. I don’t care if the story is actually being told by an older version of this boy. Fuck ‘extirpate’. Just…fuck it.

I do not buy an emotionally charged statement containing the word extirpate. And that ‘remember’ doesn’t help, either. Remember is a distant word, a past-tense sort of word. It doesn’t give the statement any immediacy–the fact that I keep referring to it as a ‘statement’ says something about how I took it.

And the ‘surely’. Is there a need for that adverb? Is there REALLY? ‘Surely’ is almost as nasty as ‘very’, if you ask me. Nothing leaks the immediacy out of a statement quite like an unnecessary adverb. Unless it’s the word ‘extirpate’. Or ‘remember’.

I’ll take the colon. Colons have immediacy. Especially if you haven’t pooped in a while.

But anyway, this is just me coming up from my reading with a friendly reminder and perfect example of why THE RIGHT WORD is important.

As to fixing this paragraph? You can fiddle with it all you want. It’s so awkward and redundant I don’t think anything will do much good. I might try something like this:

I had sworn to destroy all pirates. They deserved it.

But, frankly, I’d just as soon see it struck from the ranks entirely. It’s awkwardly placed, and I don’t think we need reminding that a boy who’s lost this much (whose name, for the record, is the incredibly giggle-inducing Hope Hubris) wants to destroy the people who’ve taken it from him. Especially in the middle of what is, essentially, a laundry list of activities.

Done ranting now. But take this as a living example of what difference the wrong word can make. Take it and learn from it. Learn from it. Learn.